Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish - James Prosek (2010)
Chapter 4. More Tales of Taniwha
Stellas father, Falla August, with a longfin eel
It is hard to see freshwater eels in their habitat. Oftentimes they live in murky water, are active mostly at night, and flee if approached. It is an unusual character trait of the New Zealand eels that they come out willingly to feed during the day and can be found in rivers and streams that are crystal clear. This offers a good opportunity to observe them in their element. I had brought some snorkeling gear and told Stella I was determined during our trip to watch eels underwater.
After visiting Kelly we returned to the North Island. Stella said she knew a good place to see big eels on our way back north to Napier and her family farm, and that I could try out my snorkeling gear there.
Standing on a bridge, peering into the creek at Mount Bruce Wildlife Preserve, I watched Stella toss mackerel chunks into the water to coax the eels out from the undercut banks. As the huge eels came out from the dark shadows, I was stunned by their enormousness, their sleek mysterious movements.
“Having second thoughts?” Stella asked.
I walked carefully down the steep muddy bank to the creek and eased into the frigid currents wearing a mask, snorkel, and wet suit. As I swam among the big eels, they came up to me and bumped their noses against my mask. It was hard not to flinch as one approached, torquing its muscular body, thick as the calf of my leg and close to five feet long.
How to define it? Was it an ocean fish or a river fish? At that size, bigger than an average large salmon, it felt to me more like an ocean fish. Yet how much history it had with the land—the seasons, the storms, the farm animals, the stones and leaves, the bird songs, the insects, the daily cycle of the sun, things tangible to us. In the ocean it was capable of traveling in the aphotic zone—at depths where no light penetrates. How did it navigate? The eels’ motion in the pool at Mount Bruce Creek was beautiful, lyrical, sinuous, symmetrical, but also fearsome. It was a sacred moment being in the water, body fully immersed with them.
The images of the large eels lingered in my mind as we headed to the farm where Stella had grown up, on an isolated stretch of coastline near Hawke’s Bay. Over the next few days she and her family would be throwing a big party to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of their good friend Papa Bear.
The land at the end of the dirt road was broken and hilly. Through a haze of sea mist there was ocean, and between the road and the waves was a clutch of buildings half hidden by bushes and trees whose tops had been sculpted into teardrop shapes by exposure to the persistent southerly winds.
Stella’s mother, Shirley Cunningham, an Englishwoman with a face channeled by the wind and sun, greeted us, smoking a cigarette. With little delay Shirley enlisted Stella to help corral sheep into a pen before dinner. Stella jumped right into the mud and helped her mother push and pull the wet animals until the job was done.
Stella’s family had moved to this piece of land from town when she was seven years old. As a girl she took to the untamed surroundings, developing an affinity for the sea and rivers. She and her father gathered kaimoana, seafood—diving for paua (abalone), pulling up crayfish pots, and collecting karengo (seaweed) and bubu (whelks) from the rocks at low tide. She learned to always respect Tangaroa, the god of the sea.
When she was eleven, Stella’s mother left, and the girls were alone on the desolate coast with their father. In those years her knowledge of the natural world only increased, as did her sense of independence. Two weeks before Stella’s sixteenth birthday, her father was killed when a rogue wave overturned his boat while he was launching it from their beach. Stella’s last memory of her father was helping him into his wetsuit the morning he died. Devastated, the two teenage girls asked their mother to come home and look after them. Stella’s mother had lived at Kairakau ever since, tending to the sheep and cows with her boyfriend, Ray.
Ray was excited to hear about my interest in eels and suggested we set a hinaki in the creek that night. At twilight we went off in his truck along a treacherous and deeply pitted road to a wooden shack. Ray said an old Scot used to live there, who made his living culling rabbits for the government. Leafless pink flowers with single stems jutted out from the ground like lollipops.
“‘Em is called naked ladies,” Ray said,” ‘cause they have no leaves.” Ray pulled the wire eel trap out of the bed of the truck, put in two fresh sheep livers, and secured the top.
“The old Scot fished this corner’ ole in the creek. It used to be good eeling’ cause they dumped dead livestock there.”
Ray lobbed the trap into the hole and we watched it disappear as it sank to the bottom. He tied the trap to a tree and we headed back to the farm.
After a dinner of lamb cooked on the charcoal grill, I pitched my tent near the beach and got in my sleeping bag. I listened to the surf pound from my cozy place, the wind whooshing in the trees. I rolled up my jacket to use as a pillow and fell asleep.
Early the next morning, Ray and I returned to the rabbit hunter’s shack to pull the eel pot from the creek, but all that was in it were two wet sheep livers. By the time we got back to the farm the guests had started showing. Throughout the day family and friends arrived in droves, pitching tents, parking their trailers, cooking food, playing music, transforming the desolate beach into a party ground.
A friend of Ray’s named Carl saw our empty trap in the back of the truck and said he’d help me catch a few eels in the creek that night.
Carl and I started drinking beer in the early afternoon along with everyone else. By dusk we were all pretty buzzed. Carl suggested we set the net before we drank too much and before it was dark, so we hiked up the beach to the mouth of the creek and then further upstream to scope out a good spot.
Carl’s trap was different from Ray’s, made of netting attached to concentric wire hoops—a fyke net. He also brought different bait: the tail, head, spine, and entrails of a sea fish called a gurnard.
The creek was very winding and off-colored, which apparently is how it always was. Carl rolled a cigarette and puffed while he read the currents.
“See,” he explained, “this spot’s no good ‘cause it’s a mud bank. But up there the bank is hard, and the stream goes under the bank. Now, there’s a spot an eel would like. You got to think like ‘em, eh? If you were an eel living there and there was a flood, you’d have a chance of not being washed down. If I gave you a choice, would you live in a shelter made of paper or cement? It’s just common sense.”
I watched Carl as he began to lay out the net in the creek. “I set the net in the fast water,” he said, “so it’s harder for the eels to suck the bait through the mesh. They feed by sucking, and when they grab hold of something they spin.”
Carl set the net with the mouth facing downstream, in the riffles at the top of the pool. The net was cone-shaped when extended. He staked the net to the ground on the bank, he explained, so a big eel could not pull it loose.
“We only just started fishing this creek,” he said, putting the last stake in the ground. “It’s loaded, mate.”
On the way back in the dark, we walked along the stream bank on sheep trails through tikouka, or cabbage trees. I was startled at turns by magpie calls and the wing-clapping of wood pigeons roosting for the night. We made our way out of the trees and toward a berm that separated the windswept beach from the wood.
As we walked I asked Carl if he’d ever seen a taniwha.
“I don’t believe in all that superstition,” he said. “Many of the people who eel a lot, Maori and pakeha, don’t go for the legends.” Yet a few steps further along the trail he began to recount a strange eel experience from his boyhood.
He was fishing a tributary of the nearby Tukituki, the river where Stella had done the research for her master’s thesis. It was spring and the glass eels were running up the river in force.
“I was just a little weaner,” he said, “and I was scooping glass eels with a jar from the creek, just dip the mouth of the jar and suck ‘em in. And it’s weird—I turned around, there was no reason I should have except I had this feeling, and there was this clear eel holding in the current with its tail cocked. It was clear as glass, and fat and about as long as my leg. All you could see was some red below its head, like his heart. The tiny glass eels were coming up and this thing was coming downstream, like it was guarding them. I felt like the eel was trying to warn me not to take any of the baby eels coming upstream. I didn’t.”
Back at the party grounds, the group had erected large tents and rigged lights. Carl and I were hungry, since we’d been away two hours, and we were happy to see, and smell, a huge banquet laid out. It was a real hangi, as Stella called it—paua fritters (the abalone collected right off the beach that day), crayfish (like a lobster, but no prominent claws), steamed green mussels, pork, lamb. Everything came from the sea or the paddock and was prepared specially for the party.
Papa Bear’s friends got up and toasted him. A few people addressed a recent political speech by Don Brash, leader of the National Party, about ending preferential treatment for Maori. The most pressing issues were related to traditional fishing rights to the foreshore and seabed. Those of Maori heritage claimed that under the Treaty of Waitangi, that right had never been passed to the Crown. Brash’s speech had created new waves of resentment for Maori—an attempt to polarize New Zealanders in hopes of winning the next election against the incumbent Labour Party.
“But here we are,” one of Papa Bear’s friends said, “Maori and pakeha together, in this beautiful place.”
Sometime in the dark and damp morning hours, I woke to find that I’d fallen asleep on the grass under the big tent. I stumbled to my tent and crawled into my sleeping bag. By the time I woke again it was light, and my tent was warm from the sun. Carl and Ray had already pulled the hinaki, which overnight had filled up with eight big eels. Ray had the eels alive in a large plastic barrel and was about to pour powdered laundry detergent on them to kill and deslime them.
Eels can be killed and prepared many different ways. Back home in Connecticut fishermen usually remove the skin by cutting a ring around the head and pulling it off like a glove off your hand. People who smoke eel usually leave the skin on the fish but remove the unappetizing slime with salt, ash, or detergent.
Even Ray, who had worked in slaughterhouses his whole life, admitted their method was cruel—removing their protective slime while suffocating them.* The eels reacted by writhing and rolling in the dry detergent, trying to use their tails to get it off their bodies, but it only spread the caustic powder.
When the eels were dead Ray rubbed them down with a sugar sack to remove any leftover slime, snipped their tails to bleed them, and hung them by their heads. After they had hung for several hours, Shirley took the task of splaying open the eels for drying.
She made an incision along each side of the long dorsal fin, running the knife blade along both sides of the spine until the flesh was free of the bone. The guts came out with the head from the back, the belly skin holding the two fillets together. The pawhara’d eel was then heavily peppered and hung to dry.
Since the assorted members of the camp didn’t have any manuka, the preferred wood for smoking eel, Papa Bear offered to fry some. He sliced the eel into chunks and cooked it in a skillet with beef tallow, skin side down. He said he usually ate the skin, but only if he’d cleaned the eel himself. He did not trust other people cleaning it. “I don’t approve of the use of powdered detergent to get the slime off,” he said. “I prefer wood ashes.”
A few people had gathered around the skillet, watching expectantly as the eel steaks turned golden brown in the fat.
“The skin fries up like pork cracklings,” one elderly Maori woman said, smacking her lips.
I asked Papa Bear if eel was served in New Zealand restaurants.
“Ah, nah,” he said, “it’s just not done. I’m not sure why they’re thought of here as second-class fish, maybe because the Maori eat them.” He laughed. “More for us.”
In the afternoon sun the red-faced pakeha and the deep-brown-skinned Maori began to prepare for yet another night of partying. They cleaned out the grills, washed pots, picked up beer bottles, brushed their teeth, and shaved in small mirrors leaning on shelves over washbasins. I half remembered, as my hangover lifted, playing guitar and singing the night before. The green grass was trampled like playing fields after a tailgate, and damp under the tents, and the sea breeze was suffused with a crushed green smell. The eels we had not yet eaten still hung on the line in the sun.
A Maori bush guide who resembles a cross between a cowboy and an Indian, Daniel Joe is tall and lean, with a long nose and a casual swagger. He wears a silver pocket watch in a leather pouch (wristwatches, he says, get hung up in the bush) and a pig-hunting knife in its sheath side by side on his belt.
To meet up with DJ, Stella and I drove from Hawke’s Bay to the region south of Lake Taupo where he lives. I’d first heard of DJ and his home, called Double Crossing, from my friend David Seidler—they had fly-fished together for years—and it was through DJ that I had come to know Stella in the first place. By this time in our trip, I’d heard enough stories about him—the loner, the adrenaline junkie—that he had taken on a kind of mythical aura, as had his cryptically named home on the Taupo-Napier road.
I’d imagined that DJ’s place was called Double Crossing because some bad deal had gone down there—that someone had died in a shootout, Old West style. The name had arisen, though, from the simple fact that in order to get to DJ’s home you had to cross a pair of rivers. The first crossing is a small stream that can be driven through with an all-wheel-drive car at most times of year. The second is a formidable river, the Waipunga, and there’s no bridge, only a cable and a small plywood car.
When he first gave up years of working in the freezerworks (the colloquial term for a slaughterhouse), DJ moved to Double Crossing, a piece of tribal land he inherited from his grandfather. No one had lived there since the early 1900s. There were no buildings or amenities on the site and no apparatus for crossing the Waipunga. For the first year he lived in a bus that he towed across the river with his friend’s tractor. Whenever DJ came or went, he had to ford the river on foot (waist deep if the water was low) or take his horse across. When any of his bros came to visit, they brought DJ something—a chair, a mirror, a window, a mattress. He lived on pigs from the bush behind his house that he hunted with his mastiff dogs and a knife, trout and eels from the river, and squash, lettuce, and kumara (sweet potatoes) from his garden. Eventually he brought out a small prefab building, arranged some furniture, built bunk beds, and all but concealed the building by transplanting full-grown ponga, or tree ferns, around it. DJ started bringing timber across the river, one plank at a time, to build a larger home of his own design, while the bunkhouse slept occasional visitors. He put cement footings on either side of the river to support a cable across it, and outfitted the cable with a cage on a pulley so he could traverse the river with some supplies, or his dogs, without getting wet—such a cable car in New Zealand is known as a flying fox. Double Crossing had been revived.
When he’s not guiding fly fishermen, white-water rafters, or Korean and German pig hunters (“the Koreans are in it for the gallbladder,” DJ said), there are times of year when DJ won’t leave the Crossing for weeks. He has a radio that runs on batteries (when he has batteries), from which he gets BBC news tailored for New Zealand, but there is no electricity at the Crossing, no TV, no telephone. His girlfriend, Nikki (Stella’s cousin), was visiting with her kids one day and the kids were talking. “What’s that you’re on about, plane bombs?” DJ asked. The September 11, 2001, attack on New York had happened two weeks before.
Stella and I pulled off the road as directed, at the Rangitaiki Pub. DJ was having a beer and “a yarn with the publican.” He invited us to join him, asking for three more Tui beers. He hugged Stella and we told him a bit about our trip so far.
“All right then,” he said, “let’s go.”
DJ led us to his driveway a few miles down the road. The entrance was well hidden—a treacherous left turn. We followed the pitted road through the first river, water over the bottom of the doors of our rental car, until the track dead-ended on the banks of the second river.
DJ helped us unload our gear from the car and whisked us across the rushing currents of the Waipunga in the flying fox.
“I call it Air New Zealand,” he shouted as we flew.
Double Crossing was a farm of sorts, skirted by native bush and embraced by a horseshoe bend of the river. DJ’s home was ringed by large tree ferns, and behind was a grove of kahikatea trees over a hundred feet tall. In the uppermost branches large wood pigeons cooed. Several horses grazed on the flat green common, and his three bullmastiff-greyhound dogs greeted us with tails wagging.
“Hey there, Football-head,” DJ called to one. “Hey, Nunu, hey, Bruiser.”
DJ helped Stella and me settle in the guesthouse, concealed by tree ferns and vines. Inside there were a few bunk beds, a kitchen, bookshelves, a couch, and a dining area. Wood figures adorned the shelves and available counter space, one of a twisting eel DJ had carved, its mouth and eyes natural features of the burled wood. A resident cat named Pussy Galore was asleep on the couch, curled up in a slanting ray of late afternoon sun. And on a windowsill above the couch were a pair of pig skulls.
DJ popped a beer for each of us, and we sat on the porch looking off across the farm.
“I don’t take many trout from this river,” he said. “They taste a little like clay, but they’re okay smoked over manuka wood. What do you say we catch a few for dinner, eh? Then we can use the heads to bait the hinaki, leave it in the river tonight, see if we can catch a few eels.”
Stella stayed behind at the house while DJ and I hiked upstream with our fly rods. We drifted our flies through the cold, milky currents of the river and in an hour of fishing managed to get three good-sized rainbow trout. I strung each of the silvery fish through its gills on a supple willow branch, and we carried them back to Double Crossing. On the way we stopped at a blackberry patch and got our fill of berries. DJ pointed out the call of a tui bird in the bush and said he often heard the mechanical song of bellbirds in the mountains behind the house.
Back at Double Crossing, we hung our waders on the porch of the guesthouse and put away our fly-fishing gear. I filleted the trout while DJ lit a fire in the fire pit to smoke the trout over manuka chips. Stella came outside the guesthouse to help prepare dinner.
“Maori traditionally smoke fish with manuka,” she said, watching DJ prepare a metal plate with shavings of the wood. “Honey from manuka flowers is renowned throughout the country.”
“There are two methods commonly employed for smoking fish,” DJ instructed, “hot smoking and cold smoking. Cold smoking is done when you have time. Hot smoking is done when you’re hungry.* Maori used to cold-smoke the heads of their enemies and relatives.”
Stella began preparing salad and boiling potatoes on the gas stove inside the guesthouse. While the trout was cooking DJ poured me a glass of wine and then put me to work mending holes in the eel pot we would set that night. DJ said that if every hole wasn’t plugged, the eels would find their way out, tail first. My mending passed inspection. In the meantime, the trout was cooking on the grill over the smoldering manuka chips.
DJ suggested we set the eel trap before dinner, otherwise we’d have a hard time walking back along the river in the dark. The heads from the trout we’d caught went into a mutton-cloth sack that was tied to the far end of the trap. The eels could chew on the bait inside the mutton cloth but not get at the bait itself. When the trap was wired shut, DJ and I carried it upstream from Double Crossing, threw the trap into the river, and tied it to a tree on the bank.
It was now dark. A rising moon had lit up the riverbed and brought shining highlights to the gurgling riffles of the river. When we returned to the Crossing we opened another bottle of wine and DJ added a few more logs to the fire. We watched the fire in silence.
DJ poked the fire with a stick. The flames illuminated the strong angles of his face. “The way I see it, there are three players in the river: the rainbow trout, the brown trout, and the eel,” he began. “The trout are British imports. The eel is the cultural factor. Everyone forgets about the eel because you don’t see them. You don’t see the eel, but he’s there, and he’s relentless in his efforts to catch the trout. He’s always stalking them. Ultimately, he’s the survivor. He can take the other two out anytime. He might wait years to catch them, till they get old and weak. The eel, old Tuna, he’s got time. He’s been there before the trout and he’ll be there after. We call that morehu—the survivor.
“I liken that to our present situation in New Zealand,” DJ continued, “between the Maori people and the Crown. The Maori people now are the morehu. We’re in pursuit of correcting the wrong that the Crown brought to us. Stella and the ones who are getting educated in the universities, they are told by their elders, like I was told by mine, that we have to fight. Our land is our economy, and the last foothold is the foreshore and the seabed. They want to make it legal through legislation, to take those rights from us.” DJ paused to drink some wine.
“Eh there, Stella?” he said to her. Her long black hair looked especially dark this night.
Stella responded with a sedate “Yeah.”
I looked at the largest of the trout, its flesh a beautiful orange-gold color. Back home this trout would have been a trophy; here trout this large are commonplace. Ironically, while the large size of New Zealand trout could be attributed to a rich food supply and mild winters, another contributing factor was the eel.
The Acclimatization Society was correct to think that the eel was a predator of the trout—eels eat plenty of them. But in the years that the eradication efforts continued and anglers and society members killed thousands of large eels, they saw their trophy trout fishery change. The trout in eel-free rivers had become more numerous, yes, but the average size was much smaller.
In the 1950s, a biologist named Max Burnett studying the interaction of trout and eels in the streams of Canterbury discovered that the eel, maligned and needlessly slaughtered, was actually in part responsible for the now world-famous trout fishing in New Zealand. By preying on the trout, the eel was culling a population that soon became overpopulated and stunted without them. With the eels in the rivers, the trout were fewer but much larger. Burnett’s work showed that the presence of eels was beneficial and single-handedly turned around public opinion of them. The killing stopped.
A young technician working with Burnett on the study, who as a child had killed eels for money, became fascinated with the life history of the snake-like fish, and in the process he has become one of its greatest advocates, not to mention one of the world’s best-known eel scientists. His name is Don Jellyman.
The fire burned to embers, the night grew cold, and we moved inside to eat dinner at a long table lit by candles. The tabletop itself was a conversation piece, a single slab of wood about twelve feet long. “The tree was from the property,” DJ said. “It’s an endemic called matai. My friend Alex, a helicopter pilot, had to fly in an old portable Patterson saw to mill it. We cut a hole in the wall with a chain saw to get the tabletop in the building.”
We picked at the meat on the trout skins. The flavor conferred by the manuka was light and sweetly smoky. Football-head, for all his intimidating massiveness, was tranquil beside us, chewing on his cow femur. DJ poured us another glass of wine. Stella asked DJ if he’d ever had a run-in with a taniwha. DJ picked his teeth with the end of a flat matchstick.
“My friend Alex and me were deep in the bush hunting pigs,” DJ said. “We went up on horseback, so we had our horses, and we were pig hunting, so we had our dogs. And we’d camped under this permanent shelter, a hut. It’d been there forever. We’d had a long day of hunting and we were cooking a big feed. It was getting toward dark, like now, and all of a sudden the bush went silent.” DJ paused. “Normally the bush is full of sounds at dusk. Well, it all went dead quiet. Then the horses started acting up and the dogs went ballistic. We’re told as kids, ‘Don’t ever camp on top of the track,’ but we did—we were set up right on it. I’m always trying to reason, and I thought, there’s some logical reason why they’re acting up. I thought it was possible that an experienced horseman was riding up in the dark, up the track along the steep ridge that we’d taken up there. People do it all the time, it’s possible. I waited for that horseman, but he never came.”
Stella looked into the candle flame on the table.
“Well,” DJ said, “now we were up on our feet and we went for cover. And then this roar came, a deafening sound. I don’t know how else to describe it, and I never heard it since.”
I momentarily thought of the eel trap sitting on the bottom of the frigid, dark river, and I was glad that we were warm and safe in the guesthouse. Before I fell asleep I wondered if any eels had found their way into the trap; if they had, I hoped they weren’t taniwha. At some point DJ left the room and went back to his house ringed by ponga to sleep.
At five-thirty in the morning I heard DJ rattling pots in the kitchen of the guesthouse, boiling water for coffee. He was waking me up because we had to pull the hinaki at first light. DJ maintained that if you pulled the eel pot after the sun was up, the eels would escape the same way they came in.
It was a cold morning and dark—summer was winding down (by this time it was late March). I could still see the odd star in the sky. I put on my waders and followed DJ down the horse track to the riverbank, through the blackberry brambles where we’d gorged ourselves on fruit the night before. Searching in the early platinum light, DJ found the rope that attached the hinaki to a tree onshore, untied it, and hoisted the trap out of the river. It had four eels in it, and one of them was big.
“It’s a good haul,” DJ said. “It’s all of five kilos that one, eh. It’s heavy. Why don’t we each grab one end of the hinaki.” In my eyes the eel was a monster. I looked at it hard to make sure it didn’t have any red eyes or stripes. It was all dark brown, dark eyes, a fish of the night, mysterious and moving its muscular body forward and backward with equal facility.
Once we were back at the horse corral, DJ began the process of cleaning the eels by putting them in an old sugar bag with ashes from the fire pit. While the ashes were desliming the eels, DJ suggested we have some breakfast.
Stella was out of bed and joined us for lamb chops and a can of spaghetti with toast. Bruiser and Nunu lay half asleep at our feet.
Stella, still in her pajamas, cleaned up some of our mess from the night before. DJ and I went out under a grove of giant macrocarpa trees and overturned the sugar bags, spilling the ash-covered eels out in the grass. The biggest one started moving through the grass, white ash glued to its skin. DJ took his pig dagger out of its sheath and handed it to me.
“You do it, James,” he said.
“Stab it through the skull?” I asked.
I did as I’d seen eel fishermen do in Europe—just stick them in the top of the head with the point of the knife. I stuck the three smaller ones, but when I got to the big one I turned away.
“I can’t, DJ. You do it.”
“No, James, I think you ought to,” he said, and looked at me coldly. I felt a shiver of vulnerability even though I was the one holding the knife. The big eel made its way across the grass, covered in leaves and dust and ash, downhill toward the river.
“I can’t, DJ,” I said again, turning the knife and extending the handle to him. He wouldn’t take it.
“No, James, you’ve got to do it all yourself, mate.”
“But why won’t you do it?”
DJ laughed his hard heckle. I felt like I was still asleep and dreaming.
“Why?” I asked DJ again. “Have you ever killed such a big eel?”
“I’ve killed them bigger than that.”
“Then why won’t you do it?”
He looked at me again and smiled his sparsely toothed smile. It wasn’t a friendly smile.
“I reckon it’s all yours, mate.”
I looked at DJ again. He looked at the ground.
I walked across the grass and took the big eel in my left hand. My thumb and forefinger went only halfway around its girth. I grabbed it right behind the pectoral fins, pinned it to the ground as it did its best to squirm away, took the pig sticker in my right hand, and stabbed the eel between the domes of its fat head. I handed DJ the dagger and he wiped the blood off the blade on the grass.
The eel continued to crawl across the ground.
“How many pigs have you killed with that?” I asked DJ about his knife.
He didn’t answer right away. We were both focused on the eel.
“I reckon you should stick it again,” he said, “but further up the head.”
So I took the knife and plunged it again, but it met with resistance. I pushed the knife deeper through the skull, heard it crack through, and felt the blade scraping in the sandy soil beneath.
“The rest is just nerves,” DJ said.
Stella came down from the guesthouse and we walked the big eel over to DJ’s house, where he had a scale to weigh it. It weighed about fifteen pounds.
“How old you reckon that eel is, Stella?” DJ asked.
“About sixty years,” she said.
It made me feel bad. Knowing it must have been old was one reason I hadn’t wanted to kill it—that, and my intense and unmentionable superstition. DJ patted me on the back.
“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s food, James. I’m going to give it to the old people, who are too old to set their own hinaki.”
I looked at the eel hanging there, and with a piece of newspaper pulled the slime and ash from it. I had never killed anything that was older than I was. But, having done it, I felt unofficially part of the Maori awareness. And I swear, as I looked at the eel I felt a certain clarity—my vision became clearer. I don’t know how else to describe it except that I felt enlightened.
Yet, simultaneously, my body flushed with regret. I couldn’t help but feel that somehow DJ had tricked me into acting out the parable of the British treatment of the Maori culture, even as he’d asked me to do so in order to be inducted into his culture. It was complicated and weird, but in the end it didn’t all need to be explained.
DJ cut the eel’s tail to bleed it out. Blood dripped into the pit he’d dug around his house, a kind of moat. DJ said he intended to divert water from a nearby spring to fill it up, so that it would be like a pool in a creek you might see in the bush, with ferns overhanging it. He’d gotten the idea when he was building the house, he said—a vision. As he dug the pit, he thought of the trout he’d put in the pool, and then he’d drop in a big eel “that would stalk and eventually kill the trout.”
“When the Europeans came, they introduced the trout,” said DJ. “Then what happened is, the trout ate all the small native fish, the kokopu and the bullies. They thought to themselves: ‘Right, we own it now, we’re kings of the pool.’ And then, from out of the depths, from the darkness, came the cultural factor, the old tuna—the giant eel. He’s an old fish, and he’s absolutely relentless, and he relentlessly stalks the trout.” DJ paused. “The eel is morehu, the survivor. I think they’ll be there till dot. Till the end of the world as we know it.”
At the end of my trip to New Zealand with Stella, I felt as though I’d been immersed in a place where not knowing is something quite different from ignorance—where the unknown is tangible and sacred, whether it be the force of a water guardian or the spawning place of the longfin eel. The nameless, the unclassified, the interstices between visible objects—all these existed in their own dimension some distance apart from concrete evidence (which by the nature of its conclusiveness seemed false and simplistic). If there was anyplace left in the world where mystery was palpable, where unknowingness was implicit, it was New Zealand. From the day I left I looked forward to going back.
* According to the German ichthyologist Friedrich Tesch, eels “can meet virtually all their oxygen needs cutaneously,” meaning that if they must, they can survive breathing exclusively through their skin. They can only do so, however, if the skin is wet-covering them with dry powder will certainly kill them.
* Cold smoking is done at a lower temperature and relies on the smoke to cure the meat, as opposed to hot smoking, which in effect cooks the meat. Cold smoking preserves meat for longer periods of time but can take hours or days.